>> Saturday, January 31, 2015
This was the NYC Midnight Short Story contest for 2015, and this is the story for the first round. Results won't be available until March, but you can read it now for fun. I was in heat 47, where I was assigned a genre (historical fiction), a main character (shoeshine boy) and a premise (moving to a new city).
So, I wrote "Stowaway in Seguin"
Etienne knew he had to move. Apparently, this compartment held baggage intended for this town and it was only a matter of time before he was discovered. Had he made it to San Antonio?He pushed aside the long wooden box he'd been hiding behind and returned the carpetbag he'd rested against to its proper spot. In the heated darkness of the room packed high with luggage, he had no idea how long he'd traveled. It felt like days, but he doubted it was more than one or two. Even so, he was very hot and very thirsty and the jug of water he'd stolen was empty.Perhaps he could sneak some food and water and maybe slip back on the train he if wasn't in San Antonio yet. He had to be in Texas, right?The door was still open from where the handlers had pulled the first cartload of luggage. Etienne knelt at the edge and breathed in, hoping to get a sense of things from the smell, but he couldn't smell more than oil and smoke, the smells of the train. Used to the darkness, Etienne blinked in the square of bright light: the washed out blue of the sky uncluttered by clouds, the scrub and grass, bleached and hardly discernible from the dusty ground, the few scruffy trees set back from the train. He was far enough from the busy platform, he doubted anyone would notice him if he snuck out.He checked the slender sling over his shoulder that contained his spare shirt, then dragged his heavy box of shoe shining supplies up next to him. The clothes on his back, his shoes and his box were all he owned in the world. He positioned the box right at the lip by the opening before turning and sliding backwards off the car.The ground was further than he'd imagined and he scared himself going down before his toes touched the ground. After that, he could barely reach his box and nearly dropped it on his own head bringing it down."Reckon you ain't got a ticket." The voice was gravelly, low . . . slow.Etienne nearly dropped his shoeshine kit, but kept hold and wished he were brave enough to wipe the sweat off his face. "I—I didn't see you.""I reckon you didn't. Didn't see you either, but I heard you scrambling around in there and came to see." The man had a quid of tobacco going and he turned to spit before adding, "Glad you ain't a rat.""No, sir."The man, tall, slim, dusty, studied him. Etienne did the same and decided he'd never seen anyone quite like him. First, his voice was different, different from the Cajun and Creole and southern patriarchs that frequented the whorehouse where his mother had worked. His voice was slow, the vowels drawn as if he had time to spare. The man wore a brimmed hat with the sides curling up and a dimple at the top. The hat was greasy and dirty but still stiff. His shirt was of a faded red, wrinkled and well-worn, but not tattered, tucked into a pair of denim pants, faded in an odd pattern. They looked well-worn as well. The man's boots were a cracked and dusty brown. He'd seen clothes like this among some of the laborers in New Orleans, often those that came from the country or even out of state.But the face, Etienne didn't think he'd ever seen a face quite like it. He was clearly white but the skin of his hands, of his face, was nearly as dark as Etienne's mother had been. His face was seamed and lined, his jaw scratchy with stubble. The man's face didn't seem old so much as exposed, cracked and eroded by the elements just like those boots he wore. The eyes, though, were bright and alive, grayish-blue and lightning shot with white as if they were created in a storm. In his dark face, his eyes were startling."Got a name, boy?"Etienne wasn't surprised at the term. That was what he was called most often, since everyone knew he was the son of a mulatto and therefore colored. Still, Etienne, outside of his own world, had passed for white before. His skin was fairly light and his hair, though curly, was not the same coarse texture as his mother's had been. His eyes, though, were very dark, nearly black. He didn't know yet if this man had seen through him. "Etienne Baker." Etienne shifted under the unrelenting stare and wondered if he could put down his kit. It also occurred to him he was in desperate need of a privy. "Are you the stationmaster?""Nope. Where's your ma, Steve?"That perhaps startled Etienne more than anything. In all his years, he didn't think any white man had ever called him by his name before. Nor had he expected this man to know the English equivalent of his French name. "She's—she's dead."The man chewed on that along with his tobacco.When the silence became too much, Etienne asked, "Are you a lawman, sir? Am—am I in trouble?"The man spit. "I ain't a lawman, Steve, but seems to me, with you sneakin' off the train and your ma dead, you're in a heap o' trouble. Where's your pa?"Etienne shrugged. "Don’t know. No one does, not even my ma." He rarely had to explain himself—no one had cared—but he felt he had to expand. "She was a whore."The man's eyes widened a bit at that, but he only said, "Well. So I'm guessin' you don't have much home to go back to."Etienne looked down but didn't close his eyes because he knew what he'd see, the greasy cobbles, the pretty brick building with wrought iron stained with grime and reeking of old piss. His home from the day of his birth, eleven years before, all he knew was here: his mother, her keepers and the steady stream of affluent men whose manners and kindness seem to evaporate once they closed the door behind them. He'd shined their shoes, but none had shown half the interest in him this stranger had, or shown any kindness except a coin tossed in the dirt for him to scrabble for. Worse still were those that had acted nice, but their eyes were hungry, predatory in the same way that men who came to take his mother were hungry. As if his mother, and even himself, were only something to be devoured.Etienne shuddered.After he'd stumbled out of his mother's room where he'd found her strangled by some patron, Etienne had snatched his kit and run. He'd run before anyone found out, before they knew his shield was gone and would look to him to fill her shoes as other houseboys did when no one was there to stop them. He couldn't say it, didn't ever want to say it, didn't want to remember it. But he knew he would, that his nights would remember it for him when he couldn't stop it. .The man spit again. "You a colored boy, Steve?"It was foolish to think those sharp blue eyes would miss it. "Yes, sir." The heat and fear were making Etienne a little light-headed. He felt dizzy and tired, tired of running and being scared. "I'm colored.""Thought you might be," the man said in a matter-of-fact way. "You needn't be scared, Steve. Y'all ain't slaves any more. Well, someone young as you never was."Etienne shrugged, weariness winning out as the fear receded. "Don't see that much difference for a whore. They chased her down if she left. Seen 'em do it with other whores, black or white, just the same. Don't see how that's different."The man nodded. "Guess it not that different now you mention it. What's in the box, Steve? You didn't steal nothin' when you left, something someone might be looking for?"Etienne shook his head. "It's a shoeshine kit. I didn't steal nothin' but myself and no one's likely to think I'm worth chasin'."For the first time, the man smiled. The vivid eyes lit up and, for a moment, those eyes seemed a perfect match for that face. "Shoeshine kit?" A chuckle in keeping with his low rumbling voice shook the man. "Ain't got much call for shoeshinin' 'round here. You'd have done better to head to San Antonio."Etienne sighed. Of course they weren't there yet. "Is it far?"The smile evaporated. "Not very. That what you want, boy, to go back to that world and shine shoes?"Etienne set down his kit with a sigh of relief as he mulled over his answer. "No." He licked his cracked lips and wished he had water. As if the man had read his mind, he walked back to a wagon standing near at hand and retrieved a canteen. Wordlessly, he gave it to Etienne. Etienne drank deeply before handing it back, not even thinking about his being colored. The man didn't seem to notice either. "No, I don't want to. But it's all I know."The man slung the canteen over his shoulder. "That's all you know yet. How old are you, Steve?""Eleven. Sir." It was easy to lose his courtesy, distracted by his painful bowels and the man's overt interest.If the man guessed his latest discomfort he made no sign. "As you were getting' on a train, why'd you choose to come here, Steve? Why not the North where there's cities like New York and Boston? Where a boy might shine shoes without having to work in a whorehouse?"Etienne hesitated. His reason was personal and probably would sound stupid to a man like this. "I heard," he offered hesitantly, "that people in Texas ride horses every day, horses like that horse there on your wagon."That smile crept back over his face. "Well, Steve, reckon you stopped in the right town after all." He turned his head as a couple of men wearing dark blue approached with a hand cart. With a jerk of his head, he told Etienne, "The outhouse is back behind the station over there. Come back when you're done." He looked at Etienne sternly. "I'll guard your kit."Guessing that explaining would likely be more painful with the people approaching, Etienne sprinted away. Much relieved several minutes later, Etienne was debating whether he wanted to risk retrieving his kit as he left the smelly shack only to see the man had followed him, a long wooden box now gracing his wagon. If the man had been concerned that Etienne would run, he showed no sign of it. Etienne could see his kit already stowed on the wagon. The man leaned back against the wagon, his hat shielding his face and, notably, his eyes. But his arm was draped over the side of the wagon, the palm of his hand on the long wooden box. So that was why the man had been there, to retrieve the box."Can you read and write, Steve?" the man asked without showing his face."Some. Mama taught me." Etienne hesitated, because he knew what he was asking was personal, but he felt compelled. "Sir, did you come here for that box?""Yup." The man's hand stroked against the rough pine of the box with great gentleness. "I came for her. Met her up in Kansas after a cattle drive. I'd just loaded the last of my herd on the cattle cars and she steps off another train from Boston as dainty and fresh as a daisy. All in cornflower blue. She wanted to ride horses, too, real horses, not the prissy ones they've got back east, wanted to live on the frontier. Turns out she didn't want to marry some old coot back home and had run away but I didn't know that. Didn't care neither.""Your wife?""Yup. Prettiest bride in Seguin. She didn't know nothin' about hard labor, but she didn't let anything stop her, not Pauline. Stubbornest woman I ever did see. She didn't look it, but she was tough as nails on the inside." He lifted his head and Etienne could see his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Wasn't enough. Consumption. Here she was increasing with our baby, while her body shrank to bones. Her sister came and got her, took her back to Boston to have the baby. She said they had hospitals n Boston, that if there were anywhere they could save her. . ."Tears leaked and slid down the crags of his face. Etienne realized that it was despair and misery that had carved some of the lines of his face. "I couldn't go. Cattle drives won't wait. When I got back, I got the wire that she had died in childbirth, the baby, too. They didn't want to send her back, but I made 'em."Etienne didn't know what to say, done in by the agony before him, wondering why the tears were falling down his own face. Did Etienne weep because of this man's pain? Or did Etienne weep because he hadn't yet grieved for the only other person who'd ever cared about him, who'd loved him even though she'd brought him into this crazy world.The man sopped his eyes with dirty blue bandana and then shoved it in his pocket. "Name's Bill. Bill Thompson. You want to ride horses?""Yes, sir," Etienne whispered around the tears in his throat."Best come with me, then. We can always use another hand on the ranch."Without another word, he swung onto the seat of the wagon and offered Etienne a hand. Etienne didn't hesitate. "I can really ride horses? Be a cowboy?"Bill looked at him. "You could. They do a lot of farmin' 'round here, too, and some orchards if you'd rather go that route. Or, you could get more schoolin'.""Really?""Well, there's a school the coloreds run, even a college that can teach you skills if you want 'em. Hell, there are some Negroes that started a potter business 'round here if you're interested. The way I see it, a man has a duty to build the life he wants for himself. Every man.""Every man?""Yup." Bill smiled down on him. "Tiny little girl from Boston taught me that. So I'm teachin' it to you."